the mania for "bird's-eye view" maps -- 3/17/17

Today's selection -- from Postcard America by Jeffrey L. Meikle. Always popular, the so-called "bird's-eye view" map of U.S. cities and towns became a mania in the wake of railroad development and more widespread travel. Between 1825 and 1875, thousands of panoramic maps were produced. Every town had to have one to remain competitive in attracting industry and immigrants, and they often exaggerated the favorable characteristics of the town -- sometimes to the point of fraud. A comprehensive collection of these prints is maintained by the Library of Congress, with some reprinted and sold to this day:

"Unlike European cities or those of the East Coast, which had developed over centuries and seemed to possess an organic integrity, American cities of the Midwest and West began as haphazard affairs hastily thrown up, expanding in a process of creative destruction, with even relatively permanent structures like city halls, courthouses, and churches lasting no more than a decade or so before being replaced by new construction. Chicago, for example, developed in sixty years from a frontier outpost into a sprawling city, the center of mid­western trade and manufacturing, whose leaders had envisioned its utopian fu­ture in the white neoclassical structures of the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893.


Bird's-eye view of Chicago as it was before the great fire. 1871

"Nineteenth-century boosters of other new settlements did not hesi­tate to misrepresent them as bustling metropolises, hives of industry where any ambitious migrant could grasp material fortune. From the 1820s to the end of the nineteenth century, printers produced so-called bird's-eye views of virtually every American city, town, and hamlet, some 2,400 places altogether. A typical bird's-eye view, usually in color after about 1850, was a lithograph based on a meticulous imaginary drawing encompassing an entire locality rendered in per­spective from an impossibly high point of view. Such a print showed local geographical features in detail, such as streets in the standard grid pattern and individually recognizable buildings, all conveyed in an illusion of three­-dimensionality with the precision of a mapmaker. Although bird's-eye views did not follow picturesque landscape conventions, they typically embedded a city or town in a pristine natural realm defined by ocean, lake, river, or mountains.


San Francisco. Bird's-eye view drawn lithographed by C.B. Gifford. 1864

"As happened with natural landscapes, the introduction of photography sub­stantially transformed and popularized urban views. From the very beginning photography was used to encompass a city as a whole, to unite its diverse array of often conflicting bits and pieces. ... Around 1850 daguerreotypists began imitating the effects of bird's-eye city views by aiming their cameras from upper-story windows, looking over rooftops or down a street. Other daguerreo­typists recorded panoramas of such cities as Cincinnati and San Francisco by exposing multiple plates, one after the other, arranged to yield a continuous picture that could reach six feet in length. These multi-plate panoramas, which were intended to promote a sense of unity, even grandeur, also inadvertently revealed the ramshackle quality of much urban construction. While an artist could idealize a city by altering details in a bird's-eye lithograph, a daguerreotypist had no choice but to record what was in front of the camera. Because a panorama presented an extended horizontal continuum without a break, it of­ten revealed less than perfect details. However, framing devices at each end -- a harbor, a ring of background hills, thick vegetation -- could circumscribe a city, no matter how provisional or chaotic, within a picturesque framework."


Bird's-eye view of Los Angeles, California.

author:

Jeffrey L. Meikle

title:

Postcard America: Curt Teich and the Imaging of a Nation, 1931-1950

publisher:

University of Texas Press

date:

Copyright 2015 by Jeffrey L. Meikle

pages:

277-279
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